The art and science of design

Had a wonderful dinner with a few of the leading minds in the design and innovation area (feel free to have your own heroes): Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek, Chris Flink of IDEO, and Chip Heath of Stanford University Grad School of Business. Blogging seems like a nice pasttime, but doesn’t hold a candle to dinner and drinks (not necessarily in that order). I left with a number of insights (and books and blogs to check out).

Chip’s work lies in understanding what makes ideas stick–in individual minds and, ultimately, in cultures. Why does an audience remember stories exponentially more than they remember facts? Why do some stories morph from reality into relatively standard narrative templates over time and retelling (like the Edison as inventor myth)? This has obvious implications for anyone involved in designing new ventures, new products, new ad campaigns, new change efforts in organizations. As Chip describes in one article:

“If we could understand what kinds of stories succeed beyond all expectations, even when they are not true, we might be able to take legitimate information, about health for example, and change people’s behavior for the better,” Heath says. “Or if I were a business manager, I would love to have a mission statement for my organization that was as successful at moving through the organization as the most successful urban legends.”

There is a vast and untapped potential in bridging cognitive science and creative output–what makes one incarnation of an idea wildly successful while the same idea, presented another way, fails without so much as a whimper. More importantly for this topic, here is where the art of design runs smack into the science…where the folks in black turtlenecks and architects glasses will be forced to cede ownership of design to ordinary folks doing extraordinary things.

Who would benefit from a more accessible understanding of design–from a few simple design rules for the rest of us? Herbert Simon, the Nobel laureate and bridger of cognitive science and organizational theory, once said: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing exsiting situations into preferred ones…” So, technically, all of us. Whether it’s an ad campaign or a mission statement, a new product or a project proposal, the principles of design apply and a little scientific insight into those principles would be quite powerful. Add to this population Bruce Nussbaum’s post about the design habits of young web users:

According to Pew “Fully half of all teens and 57% of teens who use the internet could be considered Content Creators. They have created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations.

In other words, more and more of us are designing–or realize we have been designing all along–and the time is ripe to develop a few ideas about design that stick.